Linux on laptops

I've never really been a laptop kind of guy. It was a class thing, a money thing. Accountants and managers and salespeople carried them. Dweebs like me are chained by money (or lack thereof) and tradition to desktop devices, not so much by choice as by bang for the buck. Everything for laptops is more expensive.

It's not that I, a certified member of the have-nots, haven't drooled when I've overheard the haves describing the butterfly keyboard on their new Thinkpads, or the pumped-up Pentium performance of their new Toshibas. It's just that, at most points in my life, I either couldn't afford one, or couldn't justify the added expense when I thought what the same bucks would buy for me on the desktop.

But over the past six months, my perspective has begun to change. For one thing, a couple of guys started showing up at the Austin LUG meetings with laptops, usually showing off the latest Red Hat or SuSE install. And Linux looked cool on a laptop.

Soon after, at the Open Source conference earlier this year in Austin, I saw Miguel de Icaza lugging his laptop around. In fact, he used it to demo GNUmeric and other software from the GNOME project. Linux looked even cooler on his laptop.

Listening to Linus Torvalds' keynote at the LinuxWorld Expo recently iced the issue for me. He wants more work done on APM issues so that he can get longer battery use in his own Sony VAIO laptop. These days, a dweeb just has to have one.

It was at that expo that I was faced with the prospect of writing three stories in three days -- with very short deadlines and the uncertain availability of hardware (especially as I compared the hours I would need computer access with the hours available for work in the press room). So it was actually in preparation for the event in San Jose that I began to look in earnest at the Linux laptop scene.

A quick check of the prices of new equipment convinced me that, although I still couldn't afford a new one, prices have dropped considerably. I decided to see what I could find in a previously owned model that was already running Linux.

What I found was not bad at all. For less than a thousand dollars, I got a ChemBook (actually a Kapok 7200) running a 200 MHz Pentium, with 128 MB of RAM, CD-ROM and floppy drives, a 56 Kbs PMCIA modem/ethernet card, and a removable 3.5 GB hard drive with an extra drive and an extra battery. Naturally, one of the drives booted directly into Red Hat 6.0.

As baud intended, the ChemBook was solid black. I began to fall asleep at night thinking of how cool I would look on the Nerd Bird, flying from Austin to San Jose, with my laptop open in front of me and GNOME prominently displayed. I pitied those Windows weenies who would feel awed as they walked by.

At the same time, I decided the time was right to do a column on the state of Linux laptops, and so I began to contact various vendors about a sampling of their wares. Linux Laptop was friendly, but couldn't come up with one. Dell, Toshiba, and Compaq just didn't respond to my queries. Then I noticed that a familiar name in the Linux world, ASL Workstations, was advertising laptops.

Within a week I had taken possession (for 30 days in order to review it) of an ASL AS-LT300, which is actually a ChemBook 7400, which in turn is actually a Kapok F7400, outfitted by ASL. As shipped by ChemBook, it was a 366 MHz Pentium II with 32 MB of RAM and a 512 KB L2 cache, a 14.1 inch TFT screen with an ATI Rage Pro LT 8 MB video card, and ESS Maestro-1 sound card.

ASL added 64 MB for a total of 96 MB of RAM, a 6.4 GB Toshiba hard drive, Red Hat 6.0 preloaded, the 4Front OSS sound driver, Xi Graphics Accelerated-X v5.0, and Applixware Office for Linux. Total retail as shipped by ASL, $2,647. The AS-LT300 is a big step up from my personal model.

I had the opportunity to put both laptops to good use in San Jose during the week of the LinuxWorld Expo. I loaned my personal unit to a friend who was also covering the show. The ASL stayed with me and was asked to perform extra duties as well.

The first test came not long after checking into the hotel. KDE's graphical PPP tool worked like a charm. I could connect to the Internet, and thus had an easy way to submit my stories to the editor.

The second test came the next morning at the OpenBook press conference, when a worried PR type and I verified that the VGA port on the back of the ASL would properly feed a projector. We found the magic key combination (ALT F8, I think) and the laptop display turned off and the projector lit up. I pressed the key sequence again and both were active. So far, so good.

A few hours later, Joe Wikert, the IDG honcho presiding over the Essential Linux OpenBook press conference, used the laptop, the projector, and the modem to unveil the OpenBook Web site. Everything worked just right. A Linux laptop had been tested under pressure and had responded to the challenge.

Another thing that I learned that first day at the show: twelve pounds, which is the approximately weight of the AS-LT300 in its carrying bag, gets to be a load after awhile. If you are going to be doing serious strolling, you don't want to be toting this bag around all day long.

After the first keynote I covered, I found another little something that wasn't to my liking. The laptop keyboard is situated so that, in order to type, you have to reach over the touchpad (the pointing device) and the buttons you use to emulate a mouse. If I accidentaly brushed the touchpad with my fingers, or if force of my typing somehow jarred the touchpad, I would suddenly find myself typing a paragraph or two above the spot where I should have been. Quite annoying.

While, in my dreams of glory, I had imagined the awe that would be inspired on the Nerd Bird when my KDE desktop announced it was being shut down, in reality the OSS sound drivers never worked. According to ASL, who had a booth at the show and so was always within an arm's reach for any technical difficulties that might arise, its drivers for the ESS Maestro are not yet ready.

One further thing which bothered me: I ran out of disk space on the laptop when installing Code Fusion in its default location. This problem actually had nothing to do with the fact that I was using a laptop machine; rather, it is indicative of a more general problem with preloaded Linux -- so, hopefully, it will become a much less common problem as time goes by. As this was my first experience with a machine with Linux preloaded, it was also the first time I've been bothered by it.

I'm a firm believer in the KISS (kick it stupid, simple) principle. When I do a Linux install, I typically make only three partitions: one for swap, one for the root mountpoint where Linux lives, and a third for applications which I consider independent from any particular distribution. This would include things like WordPerfect, ApplixWare, Cygnus Code Fusion, Quake II, and the like. I generally split the space available between the latter two partitions, but with very large drives, I give more to the third than to the second.

Then, when I change distributions, I have no problem simply formatting the root partition, since I know that the applications that won't be updated or replaced by the new distribution are safe in the third partition. Code Fusion installed successfully, but ran out of space as soon as I tried to create one of the demo projects. This is because the ASL installation creates separate partitions for /usr, /home, and /tmp in addition to the root partition.

I know this type of partitioning is accepted practice for many Linux users, but it's not a practice I've ever gotten into. I just don't see the advantage in having to keep up with how much space I have left where. Different strokes and all that.

In spite of these minor irritants, I found the AS-LT300 to be exactly what I needed to provide me with Linux on the road and to help me file my stories from the Expo on time. I used it exclusively to type all three of them.

The report on the Linus Torvalds's keynote was submitted in two hours, the Michael Prince keynote in about three, and the Richard Stallman interview in about four. The last two took longer, not because of problems typing on the laptop, but because of the constant winding and rewinding of my pocket recorder in order to transcribe the sessions.

My point is that if you are looking for a Linux laptop to provide reliable performance in mission-critical, deadline-oriented situations, the ASL proved to be all that and more to me.

If you are a more knowledgeable type and prefer to find the best buy you can on hardware and then do your own installation of Linux, you're not alone. A recent AltaVista search using Linux and laptop as keywords returned over 75,000 hits.

There is a HOWTO for laptops (see Resources below for a link to Werner Heuser's excellent work on the topic). It can help you pick the right hardware in the first place, help you with the hardware which might be new to you if you're like me and have never travelled beyond the land of desktops (things like PCMCIA cards, IR technology, and so on), and even provides guidance on installing and configuring Linux on the laptop.

Werner's HOWTO also provides a map to further sources of information, one of which just might be the lifesaver for a difficult install. He points to these additional sources:

Highly recommended is the survey by Kenneth E. Harker: An MIT archive of Linux laptop packages: Hardware HOWTO: The Open Hardware Certification Program: -- dedicated to the hardware aspects of (Linux) computing: How to Build a PC FAQ -- excellent hardware overview by Billy Newsom: Last, but not least: the WWW itself!

As Linux becomes more and more mainstream, the number of Linux laptop users will continue to grow. I only found two vendors (Linux Laptops and ASL Workstations) offering Linux preloaded on laptops, but there are bound to be more. Perhaps even one of the major players will be able to get its neck out from under the heel of the Microsoft monopoly long enough to offer Linux as an option on its machines. I'll keep an eye out for new choices, and so should you.

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